Chinese spying allegations increase pressure on national security community to claim scalps
26th Nov 2019
For all its failings over the last couple of decades, the Australian Parliament can at least claim the distinction, dubious or not, to be among the Western world’s powerhouses for the production of new national security laws.
Preventative detention, travel bans, metadata, and secrecy orders over court cases — all slid seamlessly off the legislative assembly line, delivered out to the spies and police who asked for them.
No wonder then that one of several influential politicians who helped champion the powers and manoeuvred them towards passage recently admitted to some tetchiness that there’s not a lot to show for it.
“We want a scalp,” the senior figure was heard to bemoan over the past month.
Even allowing for the fact that the work of intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies is necessarily done in secrecy, recent events suggest that Canberra’s national security community is now well aware of the anxiety — and is hankering for a few “scalps” of its own.
Revelations that the Chinese Communist Party may have plotted to install an agent in Australia’s Parliament have starkly brought into focus the highly charged atmosphere and pressure now facing the country’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Since 2017 the Home Affairs Department has brought together the Australian Federal Police, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Border Force, with the aim of better coordinating national security work.
Across the super-charged mega-department there’s a renewed sense of muscularity among its various agencies for going after would-be foreign meddlers targeting Australia’s sovereignty.
Duncan Lewis, the recently retired ASIO director-general, gave an early glimpse of this new-found resolve when he revealed the domestic spy agency was battling “unprecedented levels” of foreign interference.
His successor Mike Burgess, the former head of the Australian Signals Directorate, is tipped to be even more forward leaning and candid with public statements in his role as the country’s new spy chief.
Already the ASIO boss, who is also the first director-general of security to boast his own official Twitter account, has taken the historic step of issuing a press release to confirm his intelligence organisation is taking “seriously” the latest allegations of Beijing’s nefarious activities.
Similarly the new Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw is widely expected to revamp the expertise in his organisation, allowing officers to better replicate some of the counter-espionage work of their US colleagues at the FBI.
Senior AFP figures say it’s unfair to blame them for a “lack of scalps” so far, pointing to a drastic lack of funding, reductions in staff and age-old problems with information sharing between agencies.
“Ultimately I think the next thing we’re going to be looking at is a prosecution,” predicts leading China analyst Alex Joske, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Foreign interference laws have been introduced, we have transparency schemes for people acting on behalf of foreign governments to register themselves on, but to date there haven’t been prosecutions of people carrying out foreign interference in Australia.
“Yet every day we’re getting more evidence that it is happening.”
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked on Monday why authorities had not yet made a single arrest on foreign interference, he pointed to the case of Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo who was this year effectively barred from re-entering Australia.
Mr Morrison also claimed that when he spoke to other world leaders they yearned for “the integration that we have between our agencies” and “the legal frameworks” that have controversially passed Federal Parliament in recent years.
The Prime Minister also stressed his Government was always prepared to give security agencies any further powers or resources they needed to do their job.
For those close to Australia’s foreign interference frontline, it’s abundantly clear their job now firmly involves “delivering scalps”.